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Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Bunton dies of heart attack in Austin

Staff Writer

PECOS, January 17, 2001 - U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton III, who served on the federal bench for over 20 years and was instrumental in the construction of a new federal courthouse in Pecos, died of a heart attack this morning in Austin. He was 76 years old.

Funeral arrangements for Bunton have been scheduled for Friday in Odessa. Burial will be held at 1 p.m., Friday, at Sunset Gardens, main cemetery in Odessa.

A Memorial Service is scheduled for 2 p.m., at First Baptist Church in Odessa, 709 N. Lee Ave.

Bunton had retired in May because of health reasons. He diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1999 and underwent surgery, taking an eight-month leave from the bench. He returned in December 1999, but handled only a few cases before announcing his retirement.

Bunton was appointed to the federal bench in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and served as chief judge for the Western District of Texas from 1987 to 1992. He became classified as a "senior judge" in December 1992.

The atmosphere was somber at the Lucius D. Bunton Courthouse in Pecos this morning, following the news that the man whom the courthouse was named after had passed away.

"We just couldn't believe it, we are stunned," said federal clerk Michael Benavides.

Benavides said they had received the news early this morning that Bunton had passed away.

"He'll be greatly missed, he was a great man," said Benavides.

He had moved to Austin recently to be closer to his family and grandchildren and had been there for about a month and a half, according to Benavides.

"We had received an order over the fax that he would be doing some work in New Mexico," said Benavides. "So we thought, great, he'll be working a little bit, he's doing good."

Moving to Austin had also meant that Bunton would be resting more.

"He was also going to do some traveling and a little bit of work, something he loved," said Benavides.

The courthouse is Pecos will be closed on Friday in honor of Bunton. It was built in 1995 at the urging of Bunton, who said the Pecos Division needed more space to handle its cases. At the urging of local residents, the $4 million building was named after Bunton following its completion in 1996.

U.S. District Judge James R. Nowlin, the current chief judge, said in an interview when Bunton announced his retirement that Bunton made his mark by being "very freewheeling and independent." He was known as a workaholic who would push lawyers to work late into the night and who would finish trials that could last two weeks in less than two days.

Judge's work praised, even as rulings caused controversy

Staff Writers

PECOS, January 17, 2001 - Litigants, lawyers, writers and court support personnel interviewed were unanimous in their praise of Senior Judge Lucius Desha Bunton III when interviewed in March of 1996, at the time of the dedication of the new federal courthouse in Pecos that would eventually bear his name.

"On a personal level, I find him very endearing," said Hugh Kaufman, a defendant who lost a libel damage suit tried before Judge Bunton.

"I know he is controversial as hell, but where I come from, that's an asset," Kaufman said.

Bunton, a Marfa native who served as Chief Judge for the Western District of Texas during the 1980s and early 1990s, died this morning in Austin at the age of 76.

Bunton spent over 20 years as a federal judge, but became best known across Texas in the early 1990s, when he riled a lot of people in San Antonio over the Edwards Aquifer lawsuit. The suit forced the state to draw up guidelines for water resource usage and led to the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 1997, which mandated all parts of the state draw up plans for water usage and drought management.

Texas Observer writer Lou Debose said back in 1996 Bunton was a hero in Austin.

"In Austin, Bunton is best known for his rulings on the Edwards Aquifer," Dubose said back in March of 1996. "Would that he could prevail. It seems like he did everything right and the appeals court and some parties did everything wrong," he said.

Bunton also handled a number of other high-profile cases in his final years on the bench, including the trial of Republic of Texas leader Richard McLaren, and the lawsuit involving "TV Nation" creator Michael Moore and Merco Joint Ventures over the disposal of New York City sewer sludge on land in West Texas.

Watching Judge Bunton work during the Merco trial, Dubose said, "I thought the guy has some remarkable skills to put a jury at ease."

Judge Bunton said he appreciates people who give the court their time to serve on juries.

Weaning a colorful tie given him by his previous jury, he said.

"We make juries part of the family. We are sometimes informal, but I can be formidable, when I need to be."

"I think lawyers like him," Dubose said. "I think he was authoritative and managed to do that without being authoritarian."

Although "kind of harsh" at times. Judge Bunton "really cranked the trial up; kept it moving, cracking the whip," he said.

"We keep a pretty tight rein on the proceedings," Bunton said. "Initially lawyers sort of resent it because some of them kind of get the attitude it is their courtroom and they have the right to just do pretty much like they want to," he said.

"Once they get used to the rules that we are not going to go outside the record or ask questions two or three times _ they end up appreciating it because it really puts money in their pockets," he said.

Courtroom Deputy Cathy Long, who worked in federal court for over 20 years and with Bunton for nearly a decade, said he gets the job done and "doesn't mess around with his cases."

"He's a good person to work with; never a dull moment," she said. "He keeps you on your toes. I don't know when I have enjoyed a job more than working with him."

After stepping down as Chief Judge of the Western District of Texas in 1992, Bunton took senior judge status and handled more civil cases than criminal ones, though the most famous civil case turned into a crime that attracted worldwide attention.

It involved McLaren, the self-styled leader of the Republic of Texas who was on trial in federal court for filing false liens against a title company in Jeff Davis County and was eventually order to pay $1.8 million to Houston based Stewart Title Co by Bunton.

After McLaren failed to appear for trial in U.S. District Court in Pecos, Bunton ordered him seized by U.S. Marshals in May of 1996. He spent a month in jail before being released after agreeing to abide by the judge's ruling. When he violated terms of the agreement, Bunton ordered a new arrest warrant for McLaren, who then secluded himself on his Fort Davis property in December 1996, which led to the week-long standoff in April of 1997 that attracted national attention and eventually led to his trial on kidnapping charges.

Bunton grew up on a ranch near Marfa and practiced law there, serving six years as district attorney for the 83rd Judicial District.

The Buntons then moved to Odessa, where he joined the Shafer, Gillilam, Davis, Bunton and McCollum Inc. law firm and practiced for 19 years before being appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Judge Bunton worked for 16 years to get a new courthouse for the Pecos Division, which covers 10 West Texas counties. From a low point in April 1994, when not a single case was filed in the Pecos Division, the criminal case docket has grown in the past six years to the point where it is the second largest in the Western District of Texas, behind only El Paso.

Carolyn Emerson, Judge Bunton's secretary for 36 years, said, "He's the best judge in the United States. I'm not the only one that thinks that. He's really well thought of all over the United States."

She said it is hard to choose what to say: "I know so many good things about him."

Steve Balog, who has worked with Judge Bunton since he came to the bench, said he is "very kind and extremely, extremely hard working. One of the hardest working judges I have ever had the very great privilege of working with.

"He is very courteous and considerate with the courtroom staff, but more so toward all the wonderful, hard-working people that consist of the Pecos juries," said Balog, who served as U.S. Marshal in the Pecos Division and current works courthouse security at the Lucius D. Bunton Federal Courthouse. "He always seems aware of their individual problems…I think he is very sincere and honest, and probably the most fair judge in the nation."

Balog and Bunton often would put on a little entertainment for the courtroom crowd.

"It's always a great treat; a lot of fun and an honor to work with him in a courtroom, and especially during a jury trial," Balog said.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen recommended Bunton to President Carter for the federal judgeship in 1979.

"I was burned out on what I was doing," said Judge Bunton. "I had been defending a lot of lawsuits, trying a lot. I was tired of it and wanted something different to do. I had turned down the opportunity to be a state district judge and to go on the court of appeals because I just didn't want to be in a position where I had to run for office every four years or six years."

Raymond Suire, Bunton's briefing attorney back in 1996, said he is fortunate to be able to be with a judge who speaks his mind and has convictions.

"My experience with the judge has been nothing but positive, and I feel as a person just out of law school that it is a real advantage to gain law clerk experience. It is a nice segue into the kind of lawyer you want to be; the kind of lawyer that judges like to see."

Historically, the Pecos Division has been the proving ground for Bunton's law clerks, he said. "You don't consider yourself to have had Bunton experience until you have tried the first case here. I am happy we have a new facility to do it in."

Escape try gets inmate `strung up'

Staff Writer

PECOS, January 17, 2001 - An attempted escape at the Reeves County Detention Center failed this morning when the inmate involved got tangled up in security wire while trying to climb the second perimeter fence.

Jesus Gonzalez-Quesada, who is currently serving a 24-month sentence for illegal re-entry, was struggling with the barbed wire lining the second fence when a security officer discovered him at 8:01 a.m.

Deputy Warden Tony Perez said it is believed that Quesada had been outside for at least five minutes when the security officer found him tangled in the wire.

"The security system that is in placed worked," he said.

The fact that Quesada was outside so early is under investigation, since the recreation yard is not opened up until 8 a.m., according to Perez.

Pecos Police and Reeves County Sheriff's Deputies were called to assist the RCDC employees in securing the area.

Perez said that the number of staff on site at the time of the attempted escape were enough to handle the procedures and individual employees reported to the different posts to secure the area.

As a result of the attempted escape the other inmates were put in lock down status were "all the inmates are put back into their living areas," according to Perez.

RCDC guards then preceded to do a "picture card count" of the inmates to verify all prisoners were accounted for, a count, which was completed at about 9:45 a.m.

Wearing RCDC issued clothing, Quesada was able to get past the first security fence but became entangled in the barbed wire. He was cut up by the wire and eventually gave up his attempt.

Quesada was transported to Reeves County Hospital to receive treatment for his injuries.

Quesada arrived at the RCDC in October 2000 and is scheduled for release in June 2002.

Warden Rudy Franco said he was pleased with the quick response and help from the Pecos Police Department and the Reeves County Sheriff's Department.

"The police department and Sheriff's office responded immediately and appropriately," he said. "We are grateful to them."

Perez wanted to assure the community that the security measures at the RCDC do work and today's attempt is proof.

"It never was an escape, it was an attempt but he never made it close to escaping," he said.

The RCDC is a low security prison located southwest of Pecos and houses over 1,400 prisoners as part of a recent expansion that has raised the facility's capacity from 1,000 to 2,000 inmates, most of them under contract with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Plans are in the works by Reeves County to expand the prison again, to a capacity of 3,000 inmates.

Little League plans meeting Monday night

PECOS, January 17, 2001 - The Pecos Little League will be holding a meeting this coming Monday at 7 p.m. in Saragosa Hall on East Sixth Street, according to league official Lee Serrano.

Coaches are still needed for the league's 2001 season, and anyone wishing to either coach or volunteer to work with the league is urged to attend, Serrano said.


PECOS, January 17, 2001 - High Tuesday 52. Low this morning 35. Forecast for tonight: Cloudy with a 40 percent chance of snow. Low around 30. North wind 5 to 15 mph. Thursday: Cloudy with a 40 percent chance of snow. High in the upper 30s. North wind 10 to 20 mph. Thursday night: Decreasing cloudiness. Low in the mid 20s. Friday and Saturday: Partly cloudy. Lows in the mid 20s to the mid 30s. Highs in the lower 40s to the lower 50s.

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